Dr. Betty Althouse and former Premier Brad Wall during the ceremony for the Saskatchewan Premier’s Award for Excellence in Public Service. Photo: Government of Saskatchewan.

Saskatchewan’s veterinarian

Much like a trek across the prairie, the career of Saskatchewan’s chief veterinary officer Dr. Betty Althouse has been a journey from one horizon to the next. Beyond each horizon, she has arrived at a new experience and a chance to gain knowledge.

A 1982 graduate of the Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM), Althouse didn’t set out to pursue a career in public service. She first went into private practice with Animal Management Services in Humboldt and focused on herd health preventive care. In 1990, she left practice to build her own swine barn and spent the next eight years as a swine producer.

Then came the fateful turning point. “1998 was a really bad year in hog production,” Althouse recounts.

She faced some “tough choices”: expand and go deep into debt or get out of the industry. She made a compromise by converting her farrow-to-finish barn into a finisher operation and then found a Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) job at the poultry slaughter plant in nearby Wynyard. She spent her first year there doing slaughter inspection and another seven years as the veterinarian in charge of the plant.

“To be perfectly honest, I had sworn up and down when I was at vet school that I would never ever, ever, ever work in a slaughter plant,” says Althouse. She thought the job would be too routine and boring, but she quickly realized that this wasn’t the case.

Althouse took her job very seriously, ensuring that live animals were handled well and that their death was as humane as possible, and ensuring that food safety was maintained throughout the process. Similar to herd health and swine production, she found many tasks in poultry slaughter were about process flow — using statistics to monitor and measure whether everything is proceeding as it should.

She also found plenty to learn. For starters, she learned more about the poultry industry and avian pathology. She also learned about how regulations are written, interpreted and enacted, and she gained experience in working with people to enforce regulations.

In addition, she learned how to explain why things are done in certain ways and how to effectively gain compliance from staff. And when equipment breakdowns and other unusual situations popped up, she embraced the challenge of problem solving. She found rewards in seeing the plant operations improve over time, and she also enjoyed training staff.

Looking for further challenges, Althouse became the CFIA’s provincial disease control specialist — a job she held for five years. Working out of Saskatoon, she advised and guided district veterinarians on endemic disease programs including anthrax, rabies, tuberculosis, brucellosis and equine infectious anemia. She also kept livestock groups and the provincial government informed about CFIA’s actions.

Once again, Althouse had much to learn. She had to gain an understanding of the CFIA’s disease control programs and disease management and how to effectively lead disease responses. She was responsible for updating district veterinarians on changes in programs and disease control events across Canada. As well, she helped to develop national training programs in areas such as sample collection for bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE).

Some public service challenges have been less exhilarating. In all of her government jobs, Althouse acknowledges that heavy workloads and long hours are the norm. Organizational restructuring was also a regular occurrence at the CFIA.

When the CFIA announced its withdrawal from managing rabies and anthrax programs in 2012, Canadian provinces became responsible for responding to these zoonotic diseases. Althouse was concerned about the lack of national co-ordination, particularly regarding rabies. She also faced the possibility of another reorganization and possibly having to relocate out of province for work.

That year, the Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture was searching for a chief veterinary officer. After some hesitation about the commute from her home in Humboldt to Regina, Althouse applied and got the job. Her new position gave her the opportunity to develop Saskatchewan’s new response programs for anthrax and rabies, and determine how such programs could be legally established. Both diseases were recognized as notifiable diseases through a Minister’s Order.

As the province’s chief veterinary officer and manager of the Ministry of Agriculture’s animal health unit, Althouse is responsible for disease surveillance as well as assisting producers with disease response and prevention, biosecurity and emergency planning, and animal welfare.

“The disease range is much wider than the ones that were regulated by CFIA,” Althouse explains.

The past five years have been eventful for her team. When the CFIA also withdrew from providing provincial meat inspection, Saskatchewan had to come up with a replacement. Meat inspection is now contracted to a third party while the province sets the standards. In addition, when the Saskatchewan SPCA ceased enforcing animal welfare laws, a new third-party organization called Animal Protection Services of Saskatchewan was created and contracted to deliver animal enforcement.

Revisions to Saskatchewan’s animal protection legislation were introduced last fall. As well, work is underway on a provincial animal welfare strategy, including a co-ordinated response that involves health, social service, justice and police agencies in cases where human welfare is also a concern. The province’s animal health unit has been working on improvements to regulations on game farms and fur farms.

Communicating with the public through the media is another skill that Althouse has had to hone. She confesses that as a person who prefers one-on-one conversations or small group interactions, she’s still getting used to on-camera interviews. 

Althouse’s job has also positioned her to help support the WCVM’s Disease Investigation Unit that supports local veterinarians in addressing complex or unusual animal health situations among livestock herds. She says the DIU has been valuable in detecting emerging disease, preventing animal abuse or neglect, or solving complex nutritional problems.

Since 2007 the DIU has received stable funding from the province’s Ministry of Agriculture. The DIU’s director, WCVM professor Dr. John Campbell, believes Althouse has played a key role in maintaining that funding. Having spent time in private practice, Althouse also understands the kinds of issues facing veterinarians in the field, and it’s good to have someone in government with that practical perspective, Campbell says.

Beyond that, he adds that everyone appreciates her sense of humour. “She’s always got a smile and a quick wit.”

In November 2017, Althouse received the Saskatchewan Premier’s Award for Excellence in Public Service for her efforts. Looking back on her career in public service, she has found the most rewarding aspect is just that: serving the public. And how does the public benefit from having veterinarians in public service? Althouse notes that veterinarians bring their knowledge of diseases transmitted between animals and humans, as well as their understanding of food safety. Both areas are essential factors in human health, and veterinary skills in problem solving can be applied to many policy issues.

As for whether she would recommend a career in public service to others, Althouse advises veterinary students and recent graduates to spend time in practice first. But even then, she urges veterinarians to learn about how different aspects of the livestock industry work and how government policies and international trade events could affect producers.

“And if you start out that way, it’s easy to see a progression and a move eventually into public service,” says Althouse.

Kathy Fitzpatrick is a freelance journalist in Saskatoon. Born in Manitoba, she has spent close to four decades working in media — including radio, television, print and digital.

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